Imam Ali and the Caliphs – Part 1

Imam Ali & CaliphsImam Ali and the Caliphs: Their Relationship and Interaction – Part 1 of 2

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By Abd al-Karim Bi-Azar Shirazi | Translated by D.D. Sodagar

Unknown to many Muslims, both Shia and Sunni, Imam ‘Ali had congenial relations and productive interactions with the three caliphs that preceded him. In practice, his magnanimity knew no bounds and he acted as their faithful advisor and would pray behind them. Though in principle the Imam and his successors enunciated their right to the leadership of the ummah, they never acted upon it to the detriment of Muslim unity. This article proves to be a source of inspiration for present-day Muslims who are beset by the scourge of sectarianism; it is especially pertinent for those who look up to the Imam as an exemplar to be emulated in words and deeds.


Allamah Majlisi narrates the following authenticated hadith from the Master of the Faithful regarding how Muslims should speak of the Prophet’s companions:

Let me advise you regarding the companions of the Prophet of God (may His peace and blessings be upon him and his household).  Avoid speaking ill of them, for verily they are the companions of your Prophet, companions who altered not the religion and respected not those who altered the religion.  Yes, the Prophet (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him and his household) thus advised me regarding them.[1]

In another instance, Imam ‘Ali thus describes the companions of the Prophet: “Verily I witnessed the companions of Muhammad (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him and his household), and I have not seen anyone like them.”[2]

In their turn, the eminent companions would refer to Imam ‘Ali as “the fellow of the Reminder”[3] (ahl al-dhikr).  For solving their problems and questions they would go to him.  Thus in Masjid al-Nabi after each prayer, those seeking knowledge would circle around Imam ‘Ali to benefit from his illimitable knowledge.  Jurists of Sham and ‘Iraq followed his verdict.  Where the caliphs were unable to solve a problem, they would seek Imam ‘Ali’s assistance.  Where their judgments differed from Imam ‘Ali’s, the Caliphs would usually defer to him.[4] In his al-Mughni, Qudamah al-Muqaddasi narrates the following statement From ‘Abd Allah Ibn ‘Abbas: “Where we encountered ‘Ali’s opinion, we would not take that of anyone else.”[5]

Imam ‘Ali’s Relation with the First Caliph

When Abu Bakr was selected as the first caliph, a group rushed to Imam ‘Ali’s house with the intention to pledge allegiance to him as opposed to Abu Bakr.  To their disappointment, however, Imam ‘Ali thus rejected their pleas:  O people! Break through the waves of turbulence on the arks of salvation, and avoid flaunting your gentility, and repudiate the crowns of pomp.  Indeed felicitous is he who rises while he has an aid or he who submits and thereafter enjoys relief.  This [the matter of caliphate] is an unpalatable drink, a morsel that chokes him who tries to swallow it.  He who plucks a fruit before it is ripe is as a farmer who works on unprolific land.[6] Imam ‘Ali was possessed of authority and imamate by divine ordainment, but some, unfortunately, viewed him as merely a political contender.  The Imam, however, eventually made it clear that he despised worldly positions.  On one occasion Imam ‘Ali said, “this, your world, is more abhorrent to me than the doe’s phlegm.”[7]

Imam ‘Ali was displeased with the people of his time as they failed to comprehend his true status.  As Ayatullah Mulla Salih Mazandarani rightfully explains, the reason why Imam ‘Ali so often took to reasoning regarding the caliphate and imamate was to underscore the spiritual status of which the Ahlulbayt Were possessed.  He was anxious to clarify the misunderstanding that some entertained regarding the imamate of the Ahlulbayt, Taking it for a political and worldly office.[8]

The Master of the Faithful had no choice but to suffer patiently and wait.  In a famous sermon (widely referred to as the Shaqshaqiyyah Sermon), he thus describes this period: “I realized that to wait patiently was more prudent, so I suffered as one who suffers a thorn in his eye and a bone caught in his throat.”[9] With his patience, he succeeded in uniting all Muslims and spreading peace.  As a result, Muslims, instead of engaging in civil war (which would have been inevitable had Imam Ali insisted on claiming his right), embarked on exporting Islam To other parts of the world.  In a short period of time, Muslims Acquired such strength that they were able to challenge the superpowers of the time, Rome And Persia, Conquering Egypt, Iraq, And Palestine.  This Success was, without doubt, a result of Imam Ali’s Divine authority (though in appearance political caliphate seemed to be in charge). Without His divinely inspired strategy of maintaining peace, it would have been impossible for Muslims to make such progress.

Imam Ali’s Magnanimity with Respect to the First Caliph

In a letter he wrote on the occasion of Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr’s martyrdom, Imam Ali thus explained the situation following the Prophet’s death: “When Abu Bakr seized control of matters [of governance], [on some issues] he was lenient, [on others] severe; he was moderate and judicious. Thus I associated with him as an advisor, and I obeyed him with diligence where he obeyed God. I never wished that he should die and I Remain alive so that the matter in which we disputed[10] would return to me.”[11] This letter demonstrates Imam Ali’s lofty spiritual status.  After narrating this letter in his book, Skaykh Ja‘far Kashif al-Ghita’ writes, “This is the noblest position one can take [in such a situation].”[12]

Imam Ali’s Military Counsel to the First Caliph

Abu Bakr consulted with Ali on a regular basis.  When considering whether to wage war with Rome, Abu Bakr discussed the issue with several of the companions; some agreed and others disagreed.  Then he sought Imam Ali’s counsel.  Imam Ali said, “If you embark on this work, you will succeed.”  Abu Bakr happily responded, “You bode well,” and thereafter made a speech ordering people to prepare for war with Rome.[13]

The First Caliph’s Consultation with Imam Ali on Matters of Religious Law

In his Tarikh, al-Ya‘qubi counts Imam Ali among the authorities who resolved religious questions during the caliphate of Abu Bakr.[14] The following account is one instance where Abu Bakr referred a question of religious law to Imam Ali.

In a letter to Abu Bakr, Khalid ibn Walid, one of the generals of the army of Islam, asked concerning “a certain man living on the fringes of the Arab world who marries as women marry[15].” Abu Bakr assembled a number of the companions, among whom was also ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, to decide on how to punish this man.  Ali said, “This iniquity was committed not by previous nations excepting only one.[16] That nation was afflicted with what you already know.[17] I assume that you should burn him with fire.” Thus Abu Bakr wrote to Khalid that the man should be burnt.[18]

During the caliphate of Abu Bakr, Imam Ali taught Qur’an and participated in congregational prayers.  So much so that in the Masjid a special spot was designated as his.  He would sit at that spot and teach the Qur’an, its interpretation, and wisdom.  As the true inheritor of divine wisdom, he would often exhort people to ask him questions.

Imam Ali’s Relation with the Second Caliph

Two villagers had a dispute.  They went to Umar to judge between them, but Umar referred them to Ali.  One of the disputants remarked, “Are you saying that he[19] should judge?”  Infuriated, Umar replied, “Woe to you!  Do you know who he is?  He is my master and the master of every believer.  Whosoever accepts not Ali as his master is not a believer.”[20]

And again in another dispute when one of the disputants expressed displeasure with Imam Ali’s judgment, Umar angrily cried, “Woe to you!  He is the master of every faithful man and woman.”[21]

On another occasion, when Umar was criticized for showing great respect for Ali, he responded, “He is my master.”[22]

This article was first published in the Taqrib Journal, Volume 2, Number 3 – Winter 2008

[1] Muhammad Baqir al-Majlisi, Hayat al-Qulub, vol. 2, p 621.

[2] Nahj al-Balagha, Sermon 97

[3] Or “the fellow of remembrance” or “the fellow of knowledge.”  This is an allusion to surah Nahl, verse 43, where God exhorts people to seek knowledge from ahl al-dhikr. [Tr.]

[4] See Muhammad Abd al-Rahim Muhammad, al-Madkhal ila Fiqh al-Imam ‘Ali (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith).

[5] See Muhammad Ridas Qal‘ih Ji, Mawsu‘ah Fiqh ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (Damascus: Dar al-Fikr).

[6] Nahj al-Balaghah, Sermons: 5.

[7] Nahj al-Balaghah, Sermons: 3. “Doe’s phlegm” is an idiomatic reference to something considered worthless and abhorrent. [Tr.]

[8] Risalat al-Islam periodical, “Imamat wa khilafat” by Ayatullah Mulla Salih Mazandarani.

[9] Nahj al-Balaghah, Sermons: 3.

[10] That is, the leadership of the Islamic community. [Tr.]

[11] Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Thaqafi al-Kufi, Al-Gharat, vol. 1. p. 307.

[12] Mustadrak Nahj al-Balagha, fn. 120.

[13] Tarikh al-Ya’qubi (Beirut: Dar Sadir), vol. 2, pp. 132-33.

[14] Tarikh al-Ya’qubi (Beirut: Dar Sadir), vol. 2, p. 138.

[15] That is, he commits sodomy. [Tr.]

[16] That is, the people of Sodom. [Tr.]

[17] They were turned to ashes. [Tr.]

[18] See Kanz al-‘Ummal (Beirut: Mu’assesah al-Risalah, 1989), vol. 5, no. 13643; al-Mughni, vol. 8, p. 188; Kashf alNi‘mah, vol. 2, p. 134; Mawsu‘ah Fiqh al-Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (Damascus: Dar al-Fikr), pp. 546-47.

[19] That is, Ali. [Tr.]

[20] ‘Abd al-Husayn Ahmad al-Amini al-Najafi, Al-Ghadir fi al-Kitab wa al-Sunnah wa al-Adab (Beirut: Dar alKitabal-Arabi, 1977), vol. 1., p. 382.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., p.383

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